Many would think that, in order to speak a language correctly, your grammar has to be impeccable. I was one of them, and to a certain extent I still am.
I have studied 4 languages so far, and for years I have tormented myself with perfect grammar.
What would people think of me if I make mistakes after studying the language for so many years?
Every word I pronounced in front of a native speaker had been carefully thought, every sentence rehearsed in my mind until I believed it was error-free.
I have been doing this for a long time, only to see my dreams of perfect language crash miserably against a wall of silence. Because the only alternative to perfection is silence. And I have remained silent a lot in my language learner career.
Then one day something unpredictable happens and the only thing you can do is to speak.
Emergencies apart, there are many situations that push you to speak, quickly, without thinking too much. I’ll illustrate a few for you because I’m sure that sooner or later it’s going to happen to you too.
You have managed to be alone with that someone for the first time, and you can’t let overthinking ruining this moment, you just can’t. Of course one could avoid talking and go straight to the action, but to be honest, I love conversation as a starter.
You wait weeks to get a table in a restaurant you are dying to try, you finally book one, sit down, order.But when the food arrives it’s not what you thought you ordered: the plate is literally covered in cheese and you simply detest cheese. Actually, you hate it with all your heart, and soul, and body.
But you don’t know how to tell the waiter that there has been a mistake. So what do you do? You try to tell him anyway, or you allow that awfully smelling thing to be dropped off in front of you?
You are at the station, sitting on the train waiting for it to leave. You don’t know why exactly, but you have the feeling that you’re not on the right train. Asking a stranger seems a rather terrifying thought because you are almost sure that they won’t understand your poor Italian. So, do you stay and read a book and let the train decide where you are going or do you ask someone?
These situations require immediate reactions on your side, you need to talk, with or without mistakes. They also have something else in common: they favor communication over perfect grammar.
The debate on grammar vs communication dates back to several decades ago, both linguists and teachers have their preferred approach and they defend it as being the best.
I believe in the right mix of both grammar and communication, like the perfect cocktail. If the proportion of the different ingredients is not well balanced the drink can turn out disgusting or can make you drunk after the first sip. In both cases, you would rather throw it away and start from scratch.
It’s not easy to understand when you are giving too much importance to one or the other, and you may be surprised to know that it doesn’t depend on the teacher or the books you decide to learn from. It doesn’t depend on being an introvert or extrovert, perfectionist or careless. It depends on what you do with the language.
So like an experienced mixologist you will know when to give more importance to good grammar and when to focus on content.
Let’s see an example:
*Ci vediamo oggi sera
*Ci vediamo ieri sera
✓Ci vediamo domani sera
Grammar-wise, all three sentences are correct, but two are marked as wrong. Why? Because of their actual content. They cannot convey any meaning and communication is interrupted. This is a very simple example, but it’s perfect to show you that sometimes logic is the best choice.
What happens with a more complex sentence?
(*)Non posso uscire stasera perché non sento bene.
(*)Non posso uscire stasera perché non ci sento bene.
✓Non posso uscire stasera perché non mi sento bene.
The first sentence is certainly correct grammar-wise, but what does it mean? Sure, you can understand it easily, that’s why it can work in a conversation. The second sentence is almost a copy of the first, there is a new element that should be there but there’s a problem anyway. There is “ci” instead of “mi” which is a typical mistake. This little word makes the sentence a little awkward because it changes its meaning slightly. Non ci sento bene means “I can’t hear well” (same meaning as the first sentence) while non mi sento bene means “I don’t feel well” .
So as you can see there is a range of acceptable *wrong sentences that you can play with. When can you mark something as 100% wrong then? When a grammar mistake (or a series of grammar mistakes) makes it very difficult for the other speaker to understand what you mean.
You can make mistakes and still be understood, this is what you really need to know.
You need to do with what you have, which is not much at the beginning perhaps, but it’s the basis.
When you think of the Italian language think of a pizza (or a cake): the pizza is ready when all the layers are there (crust = basic grammar, tomato and mozzarella = right message). So what about all the other ingredients? Let me tell you a secret: with pizza as well as language, keep it simple.